It was the summer between my 7th and 8th grade years. I was at youth camp. One morning I got up early to go have my quiet time at a picnic table in the common area. Truth be told, I was hoping to impress a girl. I have no idea how I found myself in Exodus 3. I likely picked the passage at random. But I would forever be changed as I read of the Lord speaking to Moses from the burning bush, commissioning him as an emissary to demand the freedom of God's people from Egyptian bondage.
As I read, I had the unmistakable impression -- I think even thirty years later -- that God was calling me into vocational ministry. I certainly didn't understand all that that would entail that morning, and didn't for quite a while, but the alien thought I had never considered before in my life, despite being raised by God-fearing parents active in the church, seemed to me the voice of God.
Here are three lessons I learned weakly that morning that have solidified in my heart and mind as I followed that call throughout my adolescence and into vocational ministry the summer I graduated high school and the decades since.
1. Inadequacy is the point.
Ministry is holy ground. It is not "business as usual," and we enter danger the moment we treat it as such. Moses takes off his sandals, a symbol of reverence . . . and of vulnerability before the omnipotent God.
Moses tries to deflect. "Who am I?" This question struck at my heart then and does still to this day. Questions of identity, of "worthiness," of approval, of validation, of credibility all swirled in my timid spirit back then and continued for a long time. The LORD says to Moses, in effect, "Who cares who you are. I am with you. I AM is with you."
Ministry conducted in human power is worthless. It may result in bigness, in productivity, in markers of success celebrated by the world -- and even the church! -- but doing the Lord's work in man's way (to borrow from Francis Schaeffer) is a recipe for disaster. The only thing worse than failure, as someone else once said, is succeeding at things that don't really matter.
I was struck way back then also by the exchange in Exodus 4:10, where Moses claims he is slow of speech and tongue. He might have only been referring to his lack of eloquence, but it's possible he had some sort of speech impediment. This got my attention, because I was a stutterer from about first grade all the way into my college years. The very idea that I would someday make a living standing in front of people and talking seemed ludicrous, the very prospect intimidating, if not crushing. But the LORD says, "I made your tongue." The power that created what we use in service to him will sustain our service, adorn our service, empower our service.
Our inadequacy is kind of the point! Because God's strength is perfected in our weakness. Because God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. Because while we may plant and water, it is God who gives the growth.
I do not take this to mean that ministers should not worry about qualifications! Those called to ministry are essentially called to pursue or maintain the biblical qualifications for eldership. But even the most qualified pastor is not adequate for the fundamentally supernatural task of Christian ministry. We are dealing with the stuff of heaven. It is good, then, to feel "in over our heads." It is good to feel as though succeeding in the Lord's work is totally outside of our own power. Your indequacy is in fact an advantage, if only because it proves that Christ in you is the validation for the work.
2. The power comes from God.
I hope to never outgrow my sense of inadequacy for the duties of ministry. The moment I feel "I got this" is the moment I begin quenching the Spirit. I want to persevere in ministry purely at the mercy of the sovereign God who is with me.
The LORD says to Moses:
But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go.
The sign of faithful ministry is the gospel. God has set his people free not through pastors but through the propitiating blood of Jesus Christ. Any freedom we declare must have at the center the climactic miracle of the cross and resurrection. Moses did not have any power of his own to wield; all he demonstrated was a submission to the total power of God who brings judgment and vindication.
The fruit of this lesson was not apparent to me until I'd been in vocational ministry for more than a decade. I wasted too many years relying on my creativity, my productivity, my good ideas. It took making a wreck of my life and experiencing afresh the renewing power of grace in my own life to re-awaken to the only source of power at my disposal -- the Holy Spirit working through his word in the good news of Jesus.
Pastors, take heed. If your ministry will have any eternal power at all, it will only come from God's gospel.
3. God's presence is the baseline for reality.
There is something more precious than working for God, and it is this -- simply abiding with him. What a humbling and emboldening truth! -- that no matter what we do, where we are, or where we're called to go, the God who summoned us will be going with us, before us.
"When you go, you shall not go empty," God tells Moses (Ex. 3:21). He is speaking literally of the Israelite plundering of the enemy. But I believe he is also speaking symbolically, spiritually of the fullness of God and his provision in our pursuits of his aim. And this is the whole point of Christian ministry -- not gains, but God! We get God.
This is the baseline for reality for the Christian minister. As lonely or as discouraged as we may get -- and I have learned ministry can be the grounds of some very lonely and trying times -- the Lord never leaves and never forsakes. We must operate, then, from the baseline reality of God's presence. We don't conjur him or summon him. He has called us. He has chosen us. He has sought us.
Pastor, remember that there is no place the Lord calls you that he will not also go with you. And even if churches, friends, even family turn against you, honoring the Lord's call ensures his faithful and loving presence all the days of your life.
There is something better than ministerial accomplishments. It's divine accompaniment.